As we left the park for the last time, in May 2017, I knew I had to come back as soon as possible to Ranthambhore National Park. Whilst a lifelong passion for wildlife and especially big cats had definitely raised the bar of my expectations very, very high, nothing prepared me for how amazing that first trip had been. It wasn’t just seeing A LOT of tigers - which was obviously absolutely incredible - it was everything around those remarkable sightings too; tracking the tigers, looking for pug marks (footprints), listening for alarm calls, the spectacular habitats, the other wildlife, the wonderful people…everything!
Then there was the small matter of photography. I’m pretty used to having to deliver meaningful and creative images, when under pressure. It’s what I love about my approach to wedding photography and it’s what keeps my passion for that side of my work fresh. I feel as though I produce my best work when I’m left to work it out right then, in the moment - too much pre-planning feels very stifling.
This was very similar - you would go from nearly dozing off, to full on, adrenaline-pumping, action - all whilst bouncing around in a moving jeep, squeezed in with 5 other people, handholding a 500mm lens, in 45+c heat!
The opportunity to switch off from the outside world, completely immerse yourself in your surroundings and be so focussed on one, tantalising goal was so, so thrilling for me. I had to get back to India asap!
Choosing to come back to Ranthambhore at the end of November was all about the light. In summer, you got fantastic, soft light, for an hour or so, at the beginning and the end of the day - in all of the tiger sightings we had in summer, only one was in this kind of light, on the very last morning. Winter is a completely different ball game - the light only really begins to get very hard for an or two around midday BUT (and it’s a big but) tiger sightings are generally way more difficult to come by. In summer the heat is intense, approaching 50c at its peak and pretty much unrelenting all day. The tigers really feel this too and they search out the ever-shrinking waterholes, to cool off. This lack of water, along with the lack of foliage and canopy cover in the forest, makes them relatively much easier to spot. The also tend to move around much less in the heat, meaning much longer encounters.
All of this makes you think winter is a write-off and not worth bothering with! BUT that tantalising possibility of a tiger in amazing light, was enough to secure another booking with Andy and the Dream Team!
Our first day was pretty tough going, sightings-wise, as we predicted. However, what was so fantastic for me, was that when we did eventually see tigers, they were all new to me. We came across Krishna, the dominant adult female in Zone 4, and her sub-adult cubs. Krishna is the daughter of Ranthambhore’s most famous tiger, Machali, the subject of many a tv documentary - I had everything crossed that we would come across her again.
Our first sighting was pretty distant, across a riverbed; as the family didn’t look to be in an active mood, we thought that might be that but thankfully one of the young males decided to come to the waters edge to drink and cool off.
The next morning, peacock and Spotted deer alarm calls tipped us off that a tiger was close by and eventually Krishna’s daughter appeared in the undergrowth, next to the jeep. She was stalking a peacock but, as for many inexperienced young tigers, her efforts didn’t amount to anything.
That was it for the next 4 hours. All you can do when nothing is around is trust in the expertise of Andy, Dicky, the drivers and guides, and keep searching!
One of best ways to find tigers is to use your ears - the forest is full of watchful eyes and both Sambar and Spotted deer, Langur monkeys and peacocks will make harsh calls - called alarm calls - to let any other forest residents know when a predator is around. It’s an efficient neighbourhood watch and makes the life of a tiger that much more difficult. The guides are so tuned in to these calls, how persistent they are and the areas they come from, that they know if the animal on the prowl is a tiger or a leopard. They really know their stuff.
Eventually the searching paid off and we came across another new tiger; a magnificent adolescent male, around two and half years old - and he was on the move.
As ever, our driver, The Boss, and Andy got us into the best possible position and we could follow him as he made his way down the rocky hill, back to the forest floor. Some sub-adult tigers are very nervous but not a bit of it from this fella; he was completely uninterested in our presence and just carried on going about his business.
Whilst it seems at odds with one of the most awesome predators on Earth, in the last picture he really reminds me of a big, fluffy dog! You can really see the youthful look on his face. Not sure I’d be giving him a hug anytime soon though!
We spent a few precious minutes with him and then he was off again, into the forest where we couldn’t follow. After such a great encounter, we were more than satisfied and thought that was that.
Another 3 or 4 hours went by without tigers and we thought we’d move from Zone 4 and have a quick check of Zone 2 (where we spent nearly all of our time the summer before), before it was time to leave the park. We made the right choice…
The summer before we had spent almost all of our time with Noor and her three young cubs. Noor was completely captivating; a fantastic mother and a terrifying foe, to any who dare cross her. If looks could kill…
Within a few minutes of getting into the heart of Zone 2, we came across one of Noor’s daughters and what a difference 18 months had made.
She was now independent and had temporarily taken over many of the areas her mother controlled when I was there last. Noor had all but disappeared and when she had been fleetingly seen, it had only been in the same small area - classic behaviour from a tigress about to give birth, or who already has very small cubs. Needless to say, when Noor was ready to patrol her full territory again, it may be time for her daughter to move on.
What was clear, was that this young tigress was Noor’s daughter - she had the attitude and killer stare to prove it!
How spoilt were we, on only our second day! Beers round the campfire that night were all the sweeter!
Check back very soon to see how we got on for the rest of the week. Would we finally catch up with Krishna and would we come across any of iconic adult tigers we were lucky enough to see the year before…watch this space!